On the 30th August 2019, the President of the United States tweeted an image of an Iranian spaceport, making note of the recent failed Safir launch at the site. The release of such an image prompted raised eyebrows, given the high resolution of the image, and that it appeared to be a smartphone photo taken of a classified intelligence document.
Inquisitive minds quickly leapt on the photo, seeking to determine the source of the image. While some speculated that it may have been taken from a surveillance aircraft or drone, analysis by the satellite tracking community disagreed.
The angle of shadows in the image was used to determine the approximate time that the image was taken. Additionally, through careful comparison with existing satellite images from Google Maps, it was possible to infer the azimuth and elevation of the camera. Positions of military satellites aren’t made public, but amateur tracking networks had data placing satellite USA 224 at a similar azimuth and elevation around the time the image was taken.
With both the timing and positioning pointing to USA 224, evidence seems conclusive that this KH-11 satellite was responsible for taking the image. The last confirmed public leak of a Keyhole surveillance image was in 1984, making this an especially rare occurrence. Such leaks are often frowned upon in the intelligence community, as nation states prefer to keep surveillance capabilities close to their chest. The Safir images suggest that USA 224 has a resolution of 10cm per pixel or better – information that could prove useful to other intelligence organisations.
It’s not the first time we’ve covered formerly classified information, either – this teardown of a Soviet missile seeker bore many secrets.